Preamp vs Mixer: Which Is More Important?

It can be tough for a budding musician to understand the complex terminologies of the world of technology. With so many options of devices to choose from that offer so many different features, it can get overwhelming. 

Even before a musician can learn how to use the equipment, they are faced with the arduous task of figuring out what devices they should buy. One of the most common questions that musicians and audio engineers have is whether they should invest in a preamp vs mixer. Should they use an external preamp or just run the signals through a mixer? 

Before you decide to buy, you must understand what a preamp and a mixer are: functions, features, and shortcomings. As a musician, you best know your requirements, and knowing all nuances can help you make an informed decision.

So let’s dive right in!

What is a Preamp?

A preamp or a preamplifier is an electronic amplifier. It transforms a weak signal into a line-level or strong signal, which is further processed by transmitting to a loudspeaker. It is ideally placed close to a sensor to reduce the effects of noise and interference. 

Broadly, there are two types of preamps: first, a built-in preamp, one that is already present in a device, and the other, a dedicated external preamp.

A preamplifier takes your mic-level signal and brings it up to the line-level signal so that they match. All preamps offer different sounds, and choosing a good preamp is as important as picking a good microphone. Some preamps are specifically built for drums, some for vocals, and some are all-purpose.

Musicians use preamps to control the input selection and volume of our signal sources. Preamps select the inputs that you might want to listen to and control their volume.

Types of Preamps

Preamps can be of three categories: vacuum tubes, integrated circuits, and transistors.

Tube Preamps

Tube preamps use valves or vacuum tubes to create gain and color the sound as they aren’t transparent like other preamps. They add warmth to the mids, body to the bass, and airiness to the highs. This warmth is added when the signal increases as tubes can distort the sound. The circuit of a tube preamp creates slight compression useful in adding color.

Solid-State Preamps

Solid-State Preamps involve clipping with transistors that create gain with less heat. As the gain increases, they can maintain very low distortion until they reach the maximum level when the distortion is entirely noticeable. 

Digital Preamps

Digital preamps take analog signals and convert it to a digital signal, adding their twist in the processing before it is sent to the DAW. They bypass the audio interface’s built-in audio conversion, which can be inferior. Instead, they amplify the signal and convert it to a digital format so that your PC can record it. These are all microphone-specific, but instrument-specific ones that optimize the tone of a specific instrument like a bass or electric guitar are also available.

What is a Mixer?

A mixer, or a mixing board, mixing console, or soundboard, takes audio signals and mixes them, sending them to one or more output channels, creating a harmonious mix. It is a versatile component used for live shows to studio recordings.

Different input channels bring in audio. You can adjust volume, apply EQ, add effects and create a monitor feed for the band members. The entire mix gets sent to a PC or speakers. Some mixers come with preamps, instrument- and line-level inputs, just like audio interfaces.

Mixers may appear intimidating and confusing with lots of knobs and faders. However, the controls are divided into simple groups and are easy to understand. Furthermore, every channel has a complete set of controls to itself. Therefore, understanding the controls for one channel can help you control every other channel. Learning to use one channel strip thus means learning how the entire board works.

Types of Mixers

Mixers can be analog, digital, and powered and be available with or without an audio interface. However, mixers without a built-in audio interface can’t be used to record audio on their own. Instead, they need to be connected to an external audio interface.

However, audio interface built-in mixers can be connected to a PC and record all of the tracks that they have available or just the stereo output, depending on the type of audio interface.

Preamp or Mixer: What Is The Difference?

Both preamps and mixers are recording equipment that brings together and processes multiple audio signals into a single and balanced outcome. However, a mixer provides a wider array of onboard controls: knobs and faders adjust the level and EQ, add filters or enhance the signal with reverb and delay.

Most mixers come with a built-in preamp: typically a mic preamp. However, DJ mixers may include phono preamps for signals from turntables. 

So… preamp or mixer?

The most notable difference is the onboard control of the sound you have. Both equalize your signals and provide individual-level control, but only a mixer allows boosting or cutting specific frequencies. In addition, mixers include effects like reverb and chorus that help further enhance your sound.

External preamps can give you a better sound. This is where the budget comes in. A $400 preamp will sound better than built-in preamps in a $400 mixer. A preamp is economical if you plan to send the signal to your computer for mixing and don’t need physical knobs and faders.

The biggest impact on cost is how many inputs the device offers. Some mixers only include preamps on a portion of their inputs, so consider how many microphones you’ll use in addition to the total inputs you’ll need.

The kind of signals you’re mixing is also a factor. Are you only using microphones or also recording line-level signals from an electric guitar or bass? When working with many audio sources, a mixer is a far more efficient option.

If a microphone is the basic input device, you need a preamp. You then need to decide what type of preamp you require. Hopefully, this article has helped say goodbye to the confusion and set things up in perspective.